Wednesday, November 30, 2005 

Woe for T.O.?

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is normally a reasonable guy. But why is he threatening to bring the Terrell Owens-Eagles dispute to the anti-trust committee? Is he that desperate for media attention, or just pandering to minority football fans? The NFL owners and players collectively bargained for binding arbitration, and in this case, the arbitrator decided against a player. Since Richard Block had a history of siding with players (such as in the Terry Glenn case against the Patriots a few years ago) it was widely expected that he would support Owens's position. But the Eagles made a strong case, and removed most of Owens's leverage by agreeing to pay him for the rest of the season. The last thing we need Congress to do is to launch an investigation of why teams have the right to bench players. What's next, Sen. Kennedy attacking the Celtics for benching Mark Blount? Too bad Congress wasn't as diligent before the Iraq war.

Sunday, November 27, 2005 

Quick Slants - Week 12

With the Terrell Owens mess finally settled for this year, it's time to re-focus on the playoff races. Dallas's loss to Denver on Thanksgiving complicated the NFC picture while putting Denver in the driver's seat for the 2 seed in the AFC. Ready for a second helping of football?

New England (6-4) at Kansas City (6-4)

Back-to-back wins for the Patriots for the first time this season have given the defending champs hope for a return to the playoffs. The Chiefs have also been a trick-or-treat team this season, as they defeated the Raiders in unbelievable fashion, then suffered a letdown against the Bills, then crushed the hapless Texans last week. This is a great matchup for the Chiefs, who can attack the Patriots with Larry Johnson and also through the air. The Patriots run defense has been improving, holding Miami and New Orleans to well under 100 yards, but those teams are a combined 5-15 for a reason. New England is the only team with an above .500 record who has allowed more points than they have scored, and they've surrendered the second-most yards in the league. The only edge the Patriots may have is in the deep passing game, as the Chiefs leading receiver is TE Tony Gonzalez, but the weak New England secondary has allowed Gus Frerotte to throw for 300 yards, so that still scares me. Also, the Chiefs are the more desperate team, as a loss would drop them 3 games behind Denver and force them to shoot for the wild-card.

Chicago (7-3) at Tampa Bay (7-3)

Two of the league's best defenses meet in this matchup of divisional leaders. Tampa Bay won a wild game in Atlanta last week despite being outgained 293-118 through the air and 150-140 on the ground. Chicago's offense is no where near as proficient as Atlanta's but they share one common trait - they are the only teams in the NFL with more rushing yards than passing yards. But Kyle Orton isn't Michael Vick, which gives Tampa an edge in this game at home.

NY Giants (7-3) at Seattle (8-2)

The Giants should send Billy Cundiff a thank you card. Cundiff's missed 34 yard field goal helped cost the Cowboys their game on Thursday, which gives the Giants a chance to stay in first place even with a loss against the Seahawks. Seattle has gained more yards than any team in football (3892 - 1595,2297) though their schedule has helped with five games so far against some of the worst defenses in the league (Arizona, St. Louis, San Francisco). Shawn Alexander is having an MVP-caliber season, with 19 touchdowns and a comfortable 113 yard lead over Edgerrin James for the rushing title. Even Matt Hasselbeck is having a good year, entering this game as the third-rated QB in the NFC. But I still like the Giants in this one. Seattle has a four game lead in the NFC West, and can even clinch a playoff spot if Houston upsets St. Louis (the expression "slim and none" applies here). The Giants have been very effective against the run this year even though their overall defensive numbers do not look great. Plus, even though Eli Manning has been inconsistent this year, I'm not completely sold on Hasselbeck.

Monday Night
Pittsburgh (7-3) at Indianapolis (10-0)

The storyline for this game is simple: the Colts are trying to stay undefeated while the Steelers are trying to right the ship. Ben Roethlisberger returns after a three game abscence in which Pittsburgh struggled to defeat Green Bay and Cleveland before losing to Baltimore in overtime. With games against Cincinnati and Chicago the next 2 weeks, Pittsburgh could find themselves at 8-5 in a hurry, though the remainder of their schedule is full of cupcakes (Minnesota, Cleveland, Detroit).

For the Colts, they are driving towards history, with this game being one of many roadblocks in a stretch of games that includes playoff contenders San Diego and Seattle. I don't think they'll go 16-0, if for no other reason than if they wrap up the number 1 seed early (the lead is 2 in the loss column and Denver's schedule isn't easy either), they may rest some players. Indianapolis is playing so well that overconfidence is the only way they can lose this game. Pittsburgh has a quality defense, but their offense is not even comparable to the Colts in terms of consistency or firepower.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005 

Quick Slants - Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving! Tomorrow features two interesting games, and the potential of an "instant classic" as Denver visits Dallas. Let's dive in for a closer look...

Atlanta (6-4) at Detroit (4-6), 12:30ET, FOX

The first game of the day could be a turkey, but if you're eating early (and I suggest you do - more time for dessert and seconds) you won't care. The Falcons have lost back-to-back home games to Green Bay and Tampa Bay, and are probably happy to be on the road after last week's horror show. Atlanta showed some poise in coming back from a 13-0 second quarter deficit, but Tampa tied the game with 1:55 left and Matt Bryant kicked a game-winning field goal for the Bucs with 42 seconds left after Michael Vick was stripped by Derrick Brooks. Vick had actually had a decent game, throwing for over 300 yards, but Atlanta is now a game behind Carolina and Tampa Bay. Oddly enough, the Falcons have yet to play the Panthers this season, and will travel to Carolina next week. Then Atlanta finishes up the season with back-to-back games against both of these divisional rivals.

That said, Atlanta should win this game, since Detroit is in free fall. Dallas held the ball for over 36 minutes on Sunday by rushing for 149 yards (Bledsoe only threw for 110). That sounds just like the Atlanta game plan for this week.

Denver (8-2) at Dallas (7-3), 4:15ET, CBS

While your idea of dessert whips up visions of pumpkin pie and chocolate chip cookies, this game is the perfect second (or third, or fourth) course of the day. There are a lot of subplots. Two Super Bowl-winning coaches (Shanahan, Parcells), two quarterbacks trying to resurrect their careers (Plummer, Bledsoe, to different degrees), and two divison leaders sprinting for the playoffs.

Both teams are coming off lopsided wins last week, but Dallas should have an emotional edge since they are at home and need the game a lot more than Denver. The Cowboys are tied with the Giants (who have a tough game Sunday at Seattle) in the NFC East while Denver has a two game lead in the AFC West. Plus, Dallas has a very tough schedule the rest of the way (second-toughest) while Denver will play against a .500 slate of opponents. Denver is in the driver's seat for the #2 seed in the AFC, but that normally isn't much motivation for an NFL team. I'll be interested in seeing if Jake Plummer can continue his error-free play against a quality Dallas defense, and the battle of the running backs should also be good. Mike Anderson is once again running well, while Dallas may have found a 1-2 punch during Julius Jones absence with the strong running of Marion Barber.

Hope you have a great day!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005 

Quick Slants - Week 11

After a few days of ISP trouble, I'm back online. Here's a look back at some of this weekend's games. (Records indicate record entering this weekend.)

Carolina (7-2) at Chicago (6-3)

This game featured two teams I wasn't not sure I trust. Both teams had easy schedules, with the Panthers slate ranking as the second-easiest behind only the Colts. Carolina's 6 game winning streak was impressive, but look at their opposition:
Green Bay, Arizona, Detroit, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, New York Jets

That said, I was still impressed by Chicago's win, which puts them in the driver's seat in the NFC North.

Indianapolis (9-0) at Cincinnati (7-2)

What a track meet! This game could have been over by halftime, but Peyton Manning's interception near the end of first half allowed Cincinnati to cut the deficit to 8 at the intermission. Both offensive lines dominated the opposing defensive lines - I hadn't watched an entire Bengals game until yesterday, and I was shocked how easily they manhandled the Colts linemen. I had expected Carson Palmer to have a good game against that secondary, but it was the ground game that should have the Bengals fans excited. It will come in handy as the weather turns colder. The 10-0 Colts now meet Pittsburgh next week, and could all but clinch a first-round bye with a win.

In other news, Philadelphia's loss to the Giants indirectly ended Donovan McNabb's season, as he has decided to get his hernia fixed. It's the right decision - McNabb's been hurt all year, and the Terrell Owens circus ruined any chance of the Eagles competing in the tough NFC East.

Monday, November 14, 2005 

Many Happy Returns

Yesterday was a record-setting and memorable day in the NFL.

Chicago Bears DB Nathan Vasher returned Joe Nedney's missed 52 yard field goal an NFL record 108 yards for a touchdown. It happened on the final play of the first half, which is probably why Vasher decided to try to bring the ball out of the end zone. Watching replays on TV, the wierdest part was the trajectory of Nedney's kick, which was pulled sharply to the right by the wind. Vasher broke the Ravens' Chris McAlister's previous record of 107 yards set in 2002.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings actually made news for a play on the field. For the first time in NFL history, a team scored on an interception return (Darren Sharper), a kickoff return (Koren Robinson), and a punt return (Mewelde Moore) in the same game. One fact that will get lost in history is that Sharper's return allowed the Vikings to reach halftime with a 7-6 lead even though they were outgained 196 to 6, an incredible margin on its own.

(See my Extra Points blog for some historical perspective.)

Lastly, Jon Gruden decided to one-up Dick Vermeil and go for two at the end of Tampa's game against Washington. The penalty on the initial extra point attempt and the unexpectedly porous Bucs defense certainly played into Gruden's decision. For the second straight week, a team felt that they had a better shot at going for a win instead of tying the game and hoping to win the coin toss in overtime. I just hope this doesn't lead to some kind of NCAA-style overtime system in the NFL.

Sunday, November 13, 2005 

Quick Slants - Week 10

As the second half of the season starts, the playoff races begin to take shape. There are plenty of teams in contention, especially with the AFC East and NFC North so weak at the top.

Kansas City (5-3) at Buffalo (3-5)

First of all, I loved Dick Vermeil's decision last week to go for the win against the Raiders. The Chiefs had blown a 20-9 lead in the fourth quarter against a poor Raiders team. With Priest Holmes out, Larry Johnson had an excellent game, and had just scampered 36 yards on a reception from Trent Green to put the ball on the one yard line. To kick a field goal there would have been the "safe" decision, but the Chiefs defense was not playing great, so why surrender a chance to end the game right there?

Now they travel to Buffalo to play the Bills, who are fresh off a bye week. Buffalo features a better defense than Oakland, but their offense is so poor that I doubt they'll be able to take advantage of the Chiefs occassional defensive lapses. The loss of Priest Holmes will eventually take a toll on Johnson, but they should be fine today.

Denver (6-2) at Oakland (3-5)

After losing in dramatic fashion last week, Oakland returns home to play the rested Broncos, who had last weekend off. Denver has been rolling, especially on offense, while Oakland has been very inconsistent. The Raiders should have an emotional edge in this one, but the Broncos will likely need a win to stay ahead of the Chiefs, so that should be a powerful motivator.

Sunday Night
Cleveland (3-5) at Pittsburgh (6-2)

Romeo Crennel's team hasn't beaten a quality team yet this season (Green Bay, Chicago, Tennessee), yet this looks like a good spot for an upset. Charlie Batch had his hands full against the Packers last week, completing just 9 of 16 passes for 65 yards and an interception. Pittsburgh won because of their defense and special teams, scoring on a fumble return and setting up the clinching score on an interception. Their one-dimensional attack might run into trouble against the Browns.

Monday Night
Dallas (5-3) at Philadelphia (4-4)

Maybe Terrell Owens can talk to Jerry Jones before the game and work out a deal to play for the Cowboys next season. Dallas has been mentioned as one of Owens's likely landing spots for next season, though I'm not sure the Cowboys really need him.

This game is critical for both teams. The Giants and Redskins are both playing fading teams (Vikings, Bucs) so it's conceivable they'll be 7-2 and 6-3 by Sunday night. If the Eagles fall to 4-5, they will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs - there would be too many teams to climb over. While the Eagles may be more desperate, the Cowboys defense is playing much better right now and gives them a big edge. Dallas won their first matchup this season back in week 5, 33-10, by jumping out to a 17-0 first quarter lead and controlling the clock. The Cowboys ran the ball 46 times for 167 yards and held the ball for over 40 minutes. Philadelphia had 9 rushes for just 19 yards. Ouch. I don't have much confidence in the Eagles offense, and Cowboys certainly shut them down in that game. Looks like Bill Parcells is headed back to the playoffs again.

Friday, November 11, 2005 

Veteran's Day

I heard Ret. Col. Jack Jacobs on Imus this morning talking about past Medal of Honor recipients, including the youngest man to receive the honor, who had lied about his age to join the Marines at age 13 after Pearl Harbor, became a boot camp instructor at age 14, and won the Medal of Honor at 17. Men like him are our real heroes, and we should all take some time today to remember them.


The World Turning Upside Down

The NFC East is one of the best surprises of the year. Last year, there was a lot of publicity about the coaching troika of Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs, and Tom Coughlin and how they were going to restore the glory days to their teams. Instead, they all crashed to 6-10 finishes, and Andy Reid's Eagles won the division again with a 13-3 mark.

But this season is a different story. The Eagles are struggling at 4-4 with injuries and the Terrell Owens soap opera, while the Giants, Cowboys, and Redskins have combined for 16 wins - just 2 fewer than those three teams won all of last season. I'm the most impressed with the Giants, since their offense has been far more efficient than their rivals. I was surprised that the offenses of the four NFC East teams were ranked 3-6 in the NFC in terms of yardage - with the Cowboys at number 3 and the Giants at number 6. But the Giants 233 points scored is the best in the entire NFL, and 52 points ahead of the Cowboys. Washington and Dallas have been distinguishing themselves on defense, as they are ranked near the top of the NFC, while New York and Philadelphia are closer to the bottom. I'm glad to see Eli Manning playing well, while the Redskins and Cowboys just seem a bit too fragile to me on offense and will have to rely on their defenses if they want to reach the playoffs and have some success.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005 

Everybody's Got Something to Hide

You have to give Terrell Owens and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, a lot of credit for sticking with their story. Their press conference yesterday was bizarre. I heard the entire exchange on the radio during the afternoon, then saw parts of it on ESPNEWS last night, and I got two different (but negative) impressions.

From the audio, it seemed like Owens "might" have been sincere, though his butchering of the English made me doubt that he had even pre-read the statement before going in front of the cameras. Then his agent states that Owens already apologized over the weekend, and starts whining that the media is being unfair, with thinly veiled references to other players who have "broken the law" but have been given the benefit of the doubt. If he's referring to Ricky Williams, Jamal Lewis, and Ray Lewis, he's way off base, since the media has been very tough on all of them. And in the bigger picture, none of them directly criticized a teammate or got into locker room brawls (that I know of), so it's a completely different story. Then Rosenhaus refused to answer 90 percent of the questions from the media, stating that he didn't want to talk about the Eagles, except to say that Owens wants to practice ASAP and play on Monday night, and dismissed most of the media's inquiries with "Next Question" instead of the more civilized "No Comment".

When I saw the event on TV, it didn't change my opinions much. I was a little surprised that the press conference took place outside, which certainly detracted from the seriousness of the event, and created an informal, circus atmosphere that detracted from the sincerity of the apology. Even worse, on TV you could see Owens laughing as his agent was deflecting everyone's questions.

Rosenhaus is in a tough spot, as he is getting paid to advise and promote a hot-headed athlete who thinks the world revolves around him. I'm glad the Eagles are standing their ground on this one, and keeping him off the field.


Dig a Pony

Now that every team has reached the midpoint of its season, it's a good time to stand back and take a look at the big picture. We'll start with the AFC.

Indianapolis and Denver have been the most impressive teams in the conference so far. The Colts defense is still vulnerable against quality offenses (Rams, Patriots) but Tony Dungy is finally starting to receive some dividends from all of his hard work. The offense is now more patient, as they are not as scared of falling behind. Monday night the Colts threw the ball more than they had all season, with Peyton Manning registering his first 300-yard game of the year. Manning has been managing the game much more effectively this year, giving Edgerrin James plenty of work and softening up opposing defenses for long passes to Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. The Colts second-half schedule gets tougher, but there are few really scary games (Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati), so home field advantage is their's to lose.

I would put Denver in the number two spot, as I'm not sold on Cincinnati and Pittsburgh yet. Denver is playing in a much more competitive division, and with the exception of an awful performance in their season-opener, they have been very impressive, winning six of their last seven games while outscoring their opponents 191 to 118. Jake Plummer's history of inconsistency still scares me, but he's had a solid first half. The Broncos' blowout wins over New England and Philadelphia do not look as impressive now, but beating both defending conference champions is still an achievement.

Looking ahead, the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh race in the AFC North should be a great battle, as there is no guarantee that the loser will earn a wild-card. San Diego, Kansas City, and Jacksonville will hang around for a while and could capture two of the three spots. The only thing that is certain at this point is that the AFC East will send only one team to the playoffs, probably as the fourth seed.

Sunday, November 06, 2005 

Quick Slants - Week 9

If you live in the Northeast, this is the peak of leaf-raking season. The NFL seems to have taken this into account, as this afternoon's slate of games is the weakest so far this season. But the prime time games should be worth the wait.

Carolina (5-2) at Tampa Bay (5-2)

This is the only game of the weekend featuring two teams with above .500 records, and it should be great. With Atlanta playing at Miami, the loser of this game will likely fall into third place in the surprising competitive NFC South. Tampa has the edge on defense, where they've given up just 87 points this season, third best in the NFL behind Indy (77) and Chicago (81). But keep this in mind - Tampa Bay has played the easiest schedule so far this season, and Indy and Chicago are not far behind (more on that later).

Last week, lowly San Francisco shut down the Bucs running game, holding Cadillac Williams to 20 yards on 13 carries, which allowed them to focus on pressuring QB Chris Simms (5 sacks, 2 INTs). Tampa Bay needs a strong running game or they cannot win a big game.

Meanwhile, the Panthers have been on fire. Last week's 38-13 win over Minnesota is a little misleading since Duante Culpepper missed most of the game after his injury, but Carolina has won four in a row after a tough 1-2 start. Tampa Bay will bounce back a bit today, but they'll have to hope for a Carolina letdown to get a win.

Pittsburgh (5-2) at Green Bay (1-6)

Bet the folks at CBS are really happy with this national TV game. Talk about a game that looked a lot better during those scheduling meetings over the summer. Not only is Green Bay pathetic, but Ben Roethlisberger is out after a knee scope, so Charlie Batch starts at QB for Pittsburgh. I was surprised to see that the Packers have actually outscored their opposition this season, 158-139. While that includes a 52-3 win over New Orleans, taking that away leaves a margin of 106-136, or an average of 5 points per loss. That's a lot of close games, and last week's loss to Cincinnati was caused more by Favre's 5 interceptions than bad defense, as the Packers outgained the Bengals and were basically even in time of possession. Favre is going to be very motivated today to overcome that miserable performance.

Pittsburgh nearly blew a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter against Baltimore last Monday night before wining 20-19, so they should be motivated coming into this game. While I'd love to see Favre upset the Steelers, it's the Packers defense I'm worried about. If this is Favre's last season, today could be one of his last hurrahs.

Sunday Night
Philadelphia (4-3) at Washington (4-3)

Terrell Owens is suspended again. What a surprise. I'm not sure what's worse, the fact that he proclaimed that the Eagles would be undefeated if they had Brett Favre at QB (I guess T.O. missed those 5 picks on SportsCenter), or that he complained that the Eagles didn't "celebrate" his 100th career touchdown. Owens should be glad the Eagles are playing him at all.

Turning to the game, they don't get much bigger than this in November. Unless the Giants stumble in San Francisco, the loser of this game will fall into last place, two games behind New York. Washington was flat-out embarrassed last week in New York. In this blog last Sunday, I gave the Redskins an edge partially because they had "played a tougher schedule". While I quoted the strength-of-schedule marks for both teams, I overlooked one important fact - playing a really good team improves your SOS - even if you lose. For instance, here are the SOS numbers for the four NFC East teams:

WSH: 31 20 0 .607
PHI: 29 23 0 .557
NYG: 28 26 0 .518
DAL: 29 28 0 .508

But if you factor out the teams that they lost to, and instead look at their "SOSw" (or strength-of-schedule for just the teams they defeated) you get a slightly different story:

WSH: 16 13 0 .551
NYG: 19 19 0 .500
DAL: 17 19 0 .472
PHI: 13 16 0 .448

The gap between Washington and New York gets a lot smaller, but it really turns the spotlight on Philadelphia, who's had trouble against quality opponents and was embarrassed by Denver last Sunday. Take away Owens, and Washington looks to have an edge.

Monday Night
Indianapolis (7-0) at New England (4-3)

This week's "game of the year" might just live up the hype. The Patriots offense has been sputtering, the Colts defense is running on all cylinders, and Peyton Manning is facing a much more porous New England secondary this time around. It could spell a lot of trouble for the Patriots on Monday night. The Patriots will probably bottle up Manning most of the time, like they normally do (I'm sure they studied a lot of Cleveland Browns tape to see how they shut him down). But Manning is going to have opportunities to hit some big plays in this game. If he consistently comes through, the Colts could win big, 35-17 or more. The Patriots offense is going to have to help out. While the Colts defense is statisically impressive, they've played the second-weakest schedule in the league, and the only quality offense they've faced was the Rams - who sprinted to a 17-0 lead before Marc Bulger got hurt. If the weather cooperates, it could be a trackmeet in Foxboro.

Thursday, November 03, 2005 

Political Football

It will be better for everyone if Paul Tagliabue and Saints owner Tom Benson stay quiet for a while. The rumors of the Saints moving to Los Angeles are nothing new, and pre-date Hurricane Katrina, but the situation is so politically charged right now that any major entity who decides to leave New Orleans will be seen as "abandoning" the city. What's clear is that the NFL is desperate to have a team in Los Angeles, and Tom Benson seems ambivalent about staying in New Orleans, so something is bound to give in the near future.

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